Ter Stegen: Barcelona's shot-stopper, leader and so much more (2024)

Dermot Corrigan and Pol Ballus

May 17, 2023

When Barcelona finished last season without a trophy — again — nobody was more disappointed than Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

The 2021-22 campaign had not been a good one for the goalkeeper on a collective or personal level. Barca finished second in La Liga but were a distant 13 points behind arch-rivals Real Madrid. Ter Stegen conceded 34 goals in 35 league matches. Madrid, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad and Villarreal all had better defensive records over the 38 games.

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The German’s tally of 11 clean sheets was the fewest since he established himself as Barca’s first-choice La Liga keeper in the 2016-17 season. His shot save percentage was also well down — and many fans and pundits noted how the opposition often scored from their very first shot on target.

Ter Stegen knew that without Lionel Messi, and with Barca’s financial problems, the season was likely to be tough, but he also felt he could do much better in terms of his own performances.

The graph below shows how the German’s form had suffered through the campaign. A goalkeeper who had previously made sure his team conceded fewer goals than they statistically should have was instead finding himself picking the ball out of the net more often than expected.

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Something different was required. So before the 2021-22 season ended, Ter Stegen had a conversation with his Germany international manager Hansi Flick. They agreed he would not be in the squad for their four UEFA Nations League games in June. This was to ensure he could “get the full six weeks just doing nothing, with the family, taking it easy, not thinking or talking or even dreaming about football,” says a source close to the goalkeeper. (Like all sources cited in this story, they preferred to speak with anonymity in order to protect relationships.)

Ever since joining Barca from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2014, such a summer break had been impossible for Ter Stegen. International tournaments often led to rushed pre-season preparations. There had also been a need for regular medical treatment. In summer 2021, he had knee surgery to correct an issue which had been troubling him going back to the 2018-19 season.

Last summer’s rest period was then followed by his first complete pre-season since 2017. It had an immediate impact.

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Ter Stegen conceded just one goal in Barca’s first eight La Liga games of the season — saving 19 of the first 20 shots on target he faced. At Sevilla in September, he saved brilliantly from Ivan Rakitic and Erik Lamela when the game was still goalless, and Barca went on to win 3-0. Against Real Mallorca in October, a last-gasp point-blank stop from Jaume Costa secured a 1-0 victory.

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Ter Stegen was hitting prime fitness and form for the first time in some years, but he was also receivingmore protection from his team-mates. In previous seasons, many of the goals conceded from a rival team’s first shot on target came after opposition attacks had cut right through the Barca defence, leaving Ter Stegen exposed.

Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen were both signed last summer and have helped Barca’s defensive resilience; the Denmark international has also formed a strong partnership with Ronald Araujo in the middle of a settled back four. At right-back, Kounde was asked not to push too far forward. Tweaks through the season led to a more compact structure in midfield, especially when Frenkie De Jong was used alongside Sergio Busquets in the centre.

But Ter Stegen’s shot-stopping has also been hugely impressive, as shown by the shot map below. According to the data, the German has prevented around 8.6 non-penalty goals throughout the season.

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“Many things have changed since Xavi arrived, probably mentality (and) the way we defend,” Ter Stegen told The Athletic in February. “Everything got a different focus. I wouldn’t say that before was worse or better, just that focus shifted a bit, and right now we are in a good moment. We are deciding games. We know how to suffer as well, in complicated moments, and I think that makes us very strong.”

There has been plenty of nervous ‘suffering’ in the stands, as Barca’s most common scoreline this season has been 1-0. They have won a joint-record 11 La Liga games by that margin.

The team has not often played the sparkling attacking football associated with the days of legendary former managers and players Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola. There has been an awareness they need to be tighter in defence, take fewer risks and protect leads better, as they no longer have Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to fall back on in attack.

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“Jose Mourinho would be a perfect coach for this Barca team if they’re going to play this way,” one source close to a senior player joked to The Athletic.

Unlike his former Real nemesis Mourinho and Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone, Xavi does not spend lots of time training the team’s shape when out of possession. But the work they do on team shape in possession is also designed to make sure they are solid when they lose the ball.

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“Xavi’s approach is not to do specific work on defence, but his style of play positions the defenders to maintain the scoreline,” says another source close to a long-serving defender.

Generally, Ter Stegen is being asked to do the same job he has since he signed for Barca nine years ago. The goalkeeping coach since then has been Jose de la Fuente, who was appointed under Tito Vilanova in 2012. He is still asked to use his distribution skills and reading of the game to play a key part in the team’s build-up.

But one difference to previous coaches is that the intensity of training sessions, and what is expected of a Barca player on and off the pitch, have increased under Xavi.

Long before he officially became the team’s third vice-captain following Gerard Pique’s retirement in November, Ter Stegen was one of the few characters in the dressing room who publicly and privately voiced concerns about standards dropping within the team. “Marc will always say what he thinks, with the benefit and objective of improving the group to achieve a certain target,” says a source.

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Ter Stegen is back to his best this season (Photo: Eric Alonso/Getty Images).

On occasion, this even meant words crossed with Messi during the star’s final seasons at the club, which led to tension between the pair. Such friction between two natural leaders could be positive in a dressing room which included — and still includes — a lot of quiet characters.

Ter Stegen is one of the few present Barca players comfortable in a public leadership role, and assuming that authority also helps him with his own personal performances. He was included in the club’s group of captains in December without having to undergo the usual vote for that privilege. Everyone agreed that it was right he would replace Pique because he is the longest-serving player behind Busquets, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, the team’s other three captains.

The German’s increasingly influential role has also helped get the best out of De Jong and Christensen, who are both close to him in the dressing room. Coupled with the arrival of striker Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich last summer, this has been one of the biggest changes in the group dynamic under Xavi.

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Ter Stegen’s leadership was especially important in the final stretch of the season when Barca had control of the title race but struggled to get over the line until Sunday’s 4-2 win against Espanyol.

Their attacking threat was hurt by injuries to Pedri and Ousmane Dembele and a poor run of form from top scorer Lewandowski. Yet their remarkable defensive record continued. They wrapped up the title with four games remaining and just 13 goals conceded from 34 games in La Liga this season — the best record in Europe’s big five leagues.

If Xavi’s side can keep a clean sheet in each of their remaining four games, they will beat Cagliari’s long-standing record for the fewest goals conceded per game in Europe’s top leagues (11 goals conceded in a 30-game season in 1969-70, at a rate of 0.37 per game).

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Ironically, in the match that finally crowned Xavi’s Barca as champions, Ter Stegen was beaten twice. The goalkeeper was visibly angered by the second — scored with practically the last kick of the game. It bumped up his average goals conceded to 0.38 goals per match — Atletico’s Jan Oblak has the next-best average across Europe’s top five leagues this season, at almost double that figure (0.72; joint with Napoli’s Alex Meret).

Ter Stegen has kept 25 clean sheets this campaign — again unrivalled across Europe’s major leagues this campaign. No goalkeeper in any of Europe’s top five leagues has kept so many in a single season in the 21st century. The La Liga season record is 26, set by Deportivo La Coruna’s Francisco Liano back in 1993–94.

Barca’s keeper is also set to win his first-ever Zamora Trophy for the goalkeeper playing in La Liga with the lowest goals-to-games ratio in a season. The club’s last undisputed number one, Victor Valdes, won five Zamoras over his career, while during Ter Stegen’s first season at Barca he watched his rival for the No 1 jersey, Claudio Bravo, win it. His peers Oblak (five times) and Thibaut Courtois (three times) are also multiple winners.

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Those who know Ter Stegen say he cares little for such personal accolades and add that he will not see this season as a complete success given Barca’s early exits in Europe. Still, winning a fifth La Liga trophy will be a big deal for Ter Stegen — even more so considering it is the first he can celebrate with his son Ben, who was born in December 2019.

A lot has happened at Barca since then, and Ter Stegen’s most valued recognition will be from his team-mates. As much as the players value the defensive improvements made under Xavi, there is a wide appreciation among the group for their near-unbeatable goalkeeper’s huge contribution this season.

“Ter Stegen has been phenomenal,” says a source close to one long-serving colleague.

Another first-team player adds: “He has been insane. Our defensive record is basically because of him.”

Additional contributors: Mark Carey and Thom Harris

(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

Ter Stegen: Barcelona's shot-stopper, leader and so much more (2024)
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